India & The Maldives

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From Heat and Dust to Sunsets, Spas and Snorkels
Kerala and the Maldives

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Kerala and the Maldives make the ideal two-centre holiday. One is all-action while the other is virtually action-free. A perfect combination, says Sarah Shuckburgh

There isn’t much to do in the Maldives. Unless you are on your honeymoon and madly in love, you might get bored after a few days. However well-appointed your over-water villa, however shimmering the Indian Ocean, however engrossing your holiday reading, there’s a limit to how you can fill your time. On the minuscule holiday islands, there are no cultural relics, no historical sites, no village cafes and no local life.

This is what you should do: visit southern India first and then take a one-hour flight to the Maldives for some pampering and peace before you fly home. I spent a week in Kerala, exploring the historic city of Kochi, chugging through inland lakes and backwaters, driving into the foothills of the Western Ghats and on through ramshackle towns. We drove along roads thronging with people, animals and traffic, to the rocky, treacherous coastline at the southernmost tip of the continent. At Trivandrum, I hopped on a plane to Male and a speedboat whisked me to Cocoa Island. India has no beaches to compare with the Maldives, and the luxurious calm of a five-star desert island was a perfect sequel to the noise, congestion and dust of India.

Kerala is perhaps the most welcoming and least alarming state in India for British tourists. A narrow coastal strip a quarter the size of England, it makes up only one per cent of India’s land mass. Although the population density is twice that of England, the ambience is relaxed, the climate is tropical and lush, the traditional culture is vibrant, and the people are friendly and courteous. What’s more, many of them speak English. The food is delicious, with fish from the Malabar coast, cooked with spices grown on the Western Ghats. The first state in the world to have an elected Communist government, Kerala has the highest standard of living in India, and boasts almost 100% literacy, an efficient healthcare system, a strong service sector, and a comparatively equitable distribution of wealth.

My trip was comfortable from start to finish. I started with two nights in Kochi, staying in an elegant colonial bungalow, with time to enjoy the laidback village atmosphere of the old town centre and its picturesque Chinese fishing nets, which local fishermen have worked since Kubla Khan’s days. Then I explored Kerala’s famous backwaters. Traditional rice-barges can seem dank and dark beneath the woven roofs, but my private boat had an air-conditioned bedroom, bathroom and sitting room, sun-deck and canopied dining area. A chef served delicious Malabar fish as we chugged quietly across Lake Vembanad, its palm-fringed banks dotted with small villages. I watched a fishing-eagle dive into the water and emerge with a wriggling snake in its beak. A turquoise kingfisher skimmed the lake. Three elegant cormorants perched on a floating log as wizened fishermen paddled past in dugout canoes. On the bank, men and women were preparing shellfish – pouring their catch from baskets into a steaming cauldron over a log fire. Discarded shells lay in heaps on the sand.

With a romantic companion, one could spend several days on board, although the boat is too large to navigate the narrowest channels. Alternatively, one could sleep in one of two traditional wooden bungalows, reassembled on the lake shore, and converted to become chic boutique bedrooms, a world away from the hurly-burly of the rest of Kerala.

The next morning, there was plenty of hurly-burly as we drove on through an endless sprawl of shacks and houses, billboards and shops, many festooned with red hammer-and-sickle bunting. We passed several communist rallies, with banners, flags and elaborate floats followed by hundreds of marchers, immaculate in white dhotis. The stifling streets contained a maelstrom of gaudily-painted lorries, black auto-rickshaws, white Ambassador taxis, noisy motorbikes and wobbling bicycles. Buses lurched past, with women crowded into the back rows. Scooters carried whole families - children crammed each side of the driver, the mother perched sideways at the back, her sari fluttering. Everywhere, rubbish lay in deep drifts.

Traffic police supervised congested junctions from podiums shaded by concrete parasols. The roadsides swarmed with pedestrians - dark-skinned men with skinny legs poking from folded lunghis and grubby towels draped over shoulders; tiny women in jewel-coloured saris glided smoothly through the crowds, water-pots balanced gracefully on their heads.

At dusk, my driver swung off the main road and wound up a red earth track into the fertile foothills of the Western Ghats. We stayed the night in a 1920s estate bungalow – until recently a rambling family home, and still visited by the octogenarian owner. It had a pleasantly nostalgic air – high ceilings, shuttered windows, four-poster beds and hefty colonial furniture. The next morning, I rode an elephant called Lakshmi. Precariously perched on an eiderdown astride her massive shoulders, I felt very small and far from the ground. But as we lurched along village lanes, I grew accustomed to Lakshmi’s deeply fissured skin, her black bristly head and huge ears which flapped like wings. Loosening my white-knuckled grip, I began to enjoy the aerial views of coffee and tea plantations, groves of cinnamon, fields of cardamom and ginger, and rubber trees from which coconut shells dangled beneath gashes in the bark, to collect sap.

Continuing south towards the tip of India, we motored through an endless ribbon development, in which an occasional traditional wooden illam survived, sandwiched between half-finished concrete buildings and dilapidated shacks. We passed cashew trees with embryonic nuts dangling from clusters of green pods, coconut groves planted for coir rope and matting, and stalls selling mangoes, jackfruit and bananas. For a time, the road followed a series of backwaters, the surface clogged with purple hyacinths. Beyond the raised dyke, a lagoon shimmered in the sun. By small waterside houses, women washed clothes while their bare-chested husbands stood in wooden gondolas, hurling huge nets out over the water.

Our final stop in Kerala was at a seaside hotel with 21 traditional illam bungalows reassembled above a sandy cove on grey, rounded rocks which reminded me of Lakshmi’s wrinkly rump. Out in the bay, fishermen balanced on weather-beaten planks, searching for cuttlefish, mackerel and sardines. Bathing here is dangerous because of the steeply shelving beach, the pounding waves and the strong undertow. I was knocked over and tumbled as if I were in a washing machine – and I soon opted for a more relaxing option in the hotel’s spa. After an opening benediction, my tiny therapist smothered my naked body with dark brown oil, scrubbed me with gravel and sluiced me with ghee - an ancient ayervedic routine designed to eliminate toxic imbalances.

I was thus already quite relaxed when I left Kerala, but the astonishing calm of Cocoa Island completed the rest cure. Few passengers transfer from Trivandrum to Male, and I was the only tourist on the short flight. Despite a law that 60% of hotel staff must be Maldivian, luxury hotels on the archipelago mainly recruit staff from abroad. Levels of poverty and unemployment in the capital and on other inhabited islands remain high - Maldivians are not the main beneficiaries of the tourist industry.

Calls to prayer wafted over from a nearby island, but for two days, I put sociological concerns to one side. I basked in warm, translucent shallows, snorkelled through sunlit shoals of fish too brightly coloured and dazzling to seem true, and peered anxiously over the precipitous edge of the reef into dark, unimaginable depths. I watched the graceful progress of a pod of dolphins; I dined on delicious spiced fish and tropical fruit; I strolled on blisteringly hot, icing-sugar sand from one end of the island to the other – 600 paces. I was massaged in a cabin overlooking turquoise sea and sky, and then, from my private verandah, I watched dramatic sunsets, with traditional dhonis silhouetted against an apricot horizon. At night, torrential rainstorms pummelled the thatch and lulled me to sleep.

Two days in paradise were enough. I felt utterly restored, and ready to return to reality.

Sarah travelled with Greaves Travel:

First published by the Telegraph

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